Is Cisco Open-Sourcing its Code - or Openwashing?

You know that open source has won when everybody wants to wrap themselves in a little bit of openness in order to enjoy the glow. That's good news - provided it represents a move to true open source and not fauxpen source. Which brings me to...


You know that open source has won when everybody wants to wrap themselves in a little bit of openness in order to enjoy the glow. That's good news – provided it represents a move to true open source and not fauxpen source. Which brings me to the following news:

The industry has been divided on the choice of a common video codec for some time, namely because the industry standard--H.264--requires royalty payments to MPEG LA. Today, I am pleased to announce Cisco is making a bold move to take concerns about these payments off the table.

We plan to open-source our H.264 codec, and to provide it as a binary module that can be downloaded for free from the Internet. Cisco will not pass on our MPEG LA licensing costs for this module, and based on the current licensing environment, this will effectively make H.264 free for use in WebRTC.

Naturally, I applaud any moves by Cisco to open up its code, but I'm a little confused here. As I understand it Cisco is making its H.264 codec "open source", and also providing a binary version that can be downloaded for free. Cisco generously offers to look after the MPEG LA licensing costs for this module - which seems to suggest that licences for claimed patents in the H.264 code are not being covered by Cisco. Which means that anyone wanting to use the Cisco code must take out a separate licence, which means, of course, that the code is not actually open source.

I left a message on the post above asking for clarification on this key point, and Cisco's PR replied to a similar query from someone else as follows:

a team can choose to use the source code, in which case the team is responsible for paying all applicable license fees, or the team can use the binary module distributed by Cisco, in which case Cisco will cover the MPEG LA licensing fees.

Which means that, as I feared, this is just openwashing: code that requires a patent licence cannot be open source, so Cisco should really stop using that term. It's making the source code available, and that's good news, but it's not the same.

Interestingly, Mozilla's Brendan Eich has a post on this news:

As I noted last year, one of the biggest challenges to open source software has been the patent status of video codecs. The most popular codec, H.264, is patent-encumbered and licensed by MPEG LA, under terms that prevent distributing it with open source products including Firefox. Cisco has announced today that they are going to release a gratis, high quality, open source H.264 implementation — along with gratis binary modules compiled from that source and hosted by Cisco for download. This move enables any open source project to incorporate Cisco's H.264 module without paying MEPG LA license fees.

Eich gives some more details:

Cisco is going to release, under the BSD license, an H.264 stack, and build it into binary modules compiled for all popular or feasibly supportable platforms, which can be loaded into any application (including Firefox). The binary modules will be available for download from Cisco, and Cisco will pay for the patent license from the MPEG LA. Firefox will automatically download and install the appropriate binary module onto each user's machine when needed, unless disabled in the user's preferences.

It's good that people can turn this off, because downloading unknown blobs into your browser has never been a good idea at the best of times, but has recently become significantly worse in the wake of revelations that some companies are providing the NSA with zero-day vulnerabilities to exploit.

That means I'm much more interested in some other news that Eich has for us:

In a perfect world, codecs, like other basic Internet technologies such as TCP/IP, HTTP, and HTML, would be fully open and free for anyone to modify, recompile, and redistribute without license agreements or fees. Mozilla is fully committed to working towards that better future. To that end, we are developing Daala, a fully open next generation codec. Daala is still under development, but our goal is to leapfrog H.265 and VP9, building a codec that will be both higher-quality and free of encumberances. Mozilla has assembled an engineering dream team to develop Daala, including Jean-Marc Valin, co-inventor of Opus, the new standard for audio encoding; Theora project lead Tim Terriberry; and recently Xiph co-founders Jack Moffitt, author of Icecast; and Monty Montgomery, the author of Ogg Vorbis.

This is really exciting stuff, and exactly the kind of innovative work strengthening the open Web that Mozilla should be doing – rather than, say, helping to add DRM to HTML....

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